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February 28, 2021

Sustainability PhD student Wenjuan Liu has won first place in the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2021 student e-poster competition. Arizona State University was the host of this year's conference, the world's largest scientific meeting.

Liu's advisors in the School of Sustainability are Hallie Eakin and Datu Agusdinata. Liu's poster, Li Mining-Community-Aquifer Interactions in Salar De Atacama: An Agent-Based Model, was presented live on February 10.

Liu describes the significance of her research: "This research developed an agent-based model to examine how mining’s brine pumping behaviors affect groundwater movements and how changes in water resources affect social-stress dynamics under different mining projections. Our simulations highlight the importance of understanding and managing the downside risks of lithium extraction, point out potential pathways to help build community resilience, and identify governance challenges in regulating lithium mining stemming from resource uncertainties. This study also contributes to informing lithium-mining stakeholders about the challenges and opportunities to provide better management of the world’s largest lithium production sites for a sustainable future."

The abstract follows.

The overall sustainability of low-carbon transportation and energy technologies are closely linked to the local impacts of critical mineral extractions. Lithium (Li), as a key material in lithium-ion batteries, has been intensively extracted to fulfill the global demand for battery-enabled technologies, while its associated impacts also have been attracting academic interests. Several studies have investigated the past and current situations of mining impacts. However, few address the question of what would happen in the future regarding the ecological resources and the well-being of local communities impacted by mining activities. This study develops an agent-based model, applied in the Li-mining industry in Salar de Atacama of Chile, to understand how brine pumping behaviors of the Li-mining industry affect the groundwater movements and stress dynamics of local livelihoods, especially under different future mining plans. Our model reflects the same pattern and trend in groundwater as in empirical studies and matches the actual time of mobilization events in the social system. The analysis of future scenarios shows the communities in the eastern edge of Salar generally experience more stress when mining keeps expanding, while northern communities are more vulnerable and delayed in recovery once mining largely reduces. We also investigate how uncertainties in the groundwater system affect the stress dynamics of social actors and found these uncertainties delay feedbacks to the social system, leading to mismatched evolution of dynamics in both systems. This study also discusses the governance challenges embodied in the uncertainties of groundwater and suggests possible ways to help build resilience of local livelihoods, and points out possibilities to incorporate such ways into model improvement in future work.